Holy Week, the climax of the liturgical year, is a time rife with rare ceremony and intense solemnity. The modern Roman Rite’s ceremonies (other than the Ordo Missae) are for the most part the same as those in the immediate pre-Conciliar period, having been codified in Pius XII’s 1955 reforms of the Holy Week liturgy. One such detail unique to this time of year is the special mode of proclaiming the Passion narrative. Most Catholics are accustomed to witnessing these Gospel readings proclaimed by three readers (ideally three deacons/priests) in the traditional roles of Chronista (narrator), Christus, and Synagoga (everybody else). It has also been common to split the text of the Synagoga into two distinct parts: the Synagoga takes the voice of individual characters (other than Christ), while the so-called Turba takes the role of the crowd. When sacred polyphony entered into the liturgy, choirs sung polyohonic settings of the texts assigned to the Turba. These multi-vocal proclamations were often reserved for Palm Sunday and Good Friday because of higher attendances; however, in the old rite, the Passion narratives were still used as the Gospels of the day on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of Holy Week.
On account of the sacrosanct character of the Passion, the readings are introduced not as ordinary Gospels, but specifically as Passio Domini Nostri Jesu Christi secundum N. Furthermore, in high Masses (sung Masses), the Passion was chanted with its own unique tone (melody), wholly distinct from the usual Gospel tone. To help distinguish the parts of thr Passion, the cleric in each role sings in a different register: tenor (Chronista), countertenor or falsetto (Synagoga), and bass or baritone (Christus). Though Gregorian chant does not fit easily into the terminology associated with modern music theory, we can say that the Passion tone is, generally speaking, in a major key or major scale.
Before the 1955 reform of Holy Week mentioned above, the Passion was actually sung with two different tones; everything up to the mention of the death of Christ was sung in the major key aforementioned. As is done today, when the narrative comes to Jesus’ death, there was a break in the proclamation and everybody kneels in silence. When the reading continues in the pre-1955 rubrics, the Gospel was not sung in the same tone as before, but in the so-called Planctus tone (the weeping, wailing, or mourning tone). It is a beautifully haunting, melismatic, and melancholy melody in a minor scale which elegantly expresses the sadness of that first Holy Saturday. The Planctus was rediscovered in the revival of Gregorian chant led by the Benedictine abbot Dom Gueranger of Solemses Abbey in the 19th century, and Pius X restored it for the universal Church in his pontificate. In the 1955 reform of Pius XII, the new liturgical rubrics made no mention of the Planctus (but it was never abrogated); unfortunately, this meant that it was largely lost again, though a few places kept it. Nevertheless, even in today’s Papal Holy Week liturgies, the Planctus does not appear.
To demonstrate the aforementioned tones, below are two videos: the first is the Passion according to John chanted entirely in the Passion tone with the Sistine Chapel Choir as the polyphonic Turba (I believe the Turba setting in this case is Tomas Luis de Victoria’s); the second video showcaes Fr. Tim Finnigan chanting the end of the Gospel of Mark (from Tuesday in Holy Week in the old Mass) using the gorgeous Planctus tone. (To me, in the Gospel of John as shown below, hearing the Christus sing consummatum est, followed by the Chronista‘s et inclinato capite, tradidit spiritum, and the rustling of faithful falling to their knees is one of the most emotional and moving liturgical moments of the year; I also believe the emotional impact would be more profound if the Mourning Tone were subsequently used.)
Let us briefly switch gears to Christmas: an old tradition of the Latin rite, revived by John Paul II and strongly promoted by Benedict XVI, is the chanting of the Christmas proclamation (the Kalenda) before the beginning of the Missa in nocte. The Kalenda situates the birth of Christ in the context of sacred and secular history, counting down from the creation of the world and passing through major historical milestones before proclaiming the birth of Christ as the climactic event of all times. The text is taken from the Roman Martyrology, which lists the feasts and commemorations of each day of the year. The Kalenda also has its own unique tone, a soaring and festive melody in a major key, and the rubrics of the Martyrology dictate how it is to be sung.
As the Kalenda passes through the list of historical events and approaches the mention of the nativity, the rubrics demand a change in tone. At the words in Bethlehem Iudae nascitur ex Maria Virgine, factus homo (was born in Bethlehem of Judea from the Virgin Mary and became man) the rubrics read hic voce elevatur (here with an elevated voice). Then comes the decisive phrase: Nativitas Domini Nostri Jesu Christi secundum carnem (the Birth of our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh). For this final phrase, the rubrics read: in tono Passionis— “in the Passion tone”.
The actual execution of that final phrase is a bit more detailed than might seem: the words Nativitas Domini Nostri Jesu Christi are sung in an elaborate version of the Passion tone (major key). The words secundum carnem, however, are sung in the haunting minor scale of the Planctus tone. Below is the Kalenda as proclaimed in St. Peter’s. Note the change in melody at the end. (Click here for the English and Latin text of the Kalenda; read and follow along with the video).
Thus the Church sings of the birth of Christ in the same manner as it once sang of his death. What is the meaning of this beautiful, though now obscure, liturgical curiosity? Why does the Church use the Mourning Tone to proclaim Christ’s human birth?
The answer lies in the fact that the Incarnation itself is a sort of Passion. Descending from all-powerful infinity into the finite world on account of man’s sin, God already suffered as he “emptied” and “humbled himself” to become a human child who felt heat and cold, hunger and thirst, the crudeness of the manger, and the blood of his birth. Already in the image of the swaddling cloths and wooden manger, we can recall the image of Isaac tied by rags to Abraham’s wooden altar, and even here we see a prefiguration of the cross and burial. Christmas is certainly a celebration of joy for the coming of the Messiah, but even more is it a reminder of the suffering of the Lord which is to come. Thus we may be a bit more hesitsnt to sing the carol which goes, “The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes/But little Lord Jesus no crying he makes”. The song’s author certainly cannot be sure of such, and given that Christ entered fully into all the pain of human life, the assertion of his lyric apprears more and more improbable.
Against this backdrop, the logic behind the use of the Passion tone at the Nativity’s proclamation comes into vivid relief. At last, the poingnantly haunting Planctus tone at the words secundum carnem finds its raison d’etre— for at the moment when Christ entered the world “according to the flesh”, he took on that fallen nature which by Adam’s fall forever bears the painful condemnation of mortality. The Crib, not the Cross, gives the first splinters of the Passion.
Christmas prefigures Good Friday, the Incarnation pressupposes the Passion, and the Nativity implies the Death of the Lord. The Roman Church, in all her sublime genius, expresses this truth in the subtle elegance of her venerable liturgy.